Without question, playing hockey requires toughness.
But that’s toughness of the physical variety — defined by the ability to take and deliver a hit, to hold your ground in the crease or the corners, to leap over the boards for one more shift when your legs and lungs are screaming “no.”
What of mental toughness? Maybe more to the point: What is mental toughness?
Legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi defined it thusly: “Mental toughness is many things and rather difficult to explain. Its qualities are sacrifice and self-denial. Also, most importantly, it is combined with a perfectly disciplined will that refuses to give in. It’s a state of mind — you could call it character in action.”
Feelings Aren’t Facts
Some sports psychologists will tell you mental toughness is a myth, arguing that convincing yourself to be constantly tough is to live perpetually in denial, and further such denial is a tacit admission that you don’t know how to handle negative thoughts and emotions. Some would argue the semantical flip side, that what the above argument describes — conceding you have to learn to handle those perfectly natural thoughts and emotions — is the very definition of, or at least the pathway to, true mental toughness.
Perhaps, though, mental toughness is best thought of in terms of Mark Twain’s classic definition of courage: “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”
Components Of Mental Toughness
Complete mental toughness is the sum of many parts, but no one ingredient is more essential than preparation. An athlete who knows he has given his best to prepare his body will not doubt its readiness for those “crunch time” moments that arrive in every contest. And an athlete who has given his best to prepare his mind will trust conscious training that has become subconscious instinct.
So, it takes work. But work on what? What are the components of mental toughness? It depends on whom you ask.
Some cite determination, concentration, self-confidence and poise. Others prefer flexibility, responsiveness, strength, courage, ethics and sportsmanship. Nearly everything you’ll see on the subject of mental toughness, however, will deal in some way with the notion of resiliency, or failing well.
This is to say, learn from your mistakes. Don’t be afraid to make them (as long as you’ve not crossed that line from max effort to out of control). Be ready to endure the downs that inevitably arrive, remain optimistic, and be willing to make adjustments.
Head Games and Hockey Games
On the ice, opportunities to be mentally tough will manifest in essentially three ways:
When factors are out of your control: A mentally weak player will give full throat to his displeasure over a lousy referee — no doubt creating a ref willing to give him more reasons to yell. A mentally strong player will realize most refs, if they know they’ve blown a call, will try to even it up — and if the refs are just bad, it’ll even up naturally.
Similarly, concede that there are other things out of your control — ice conditions (hey, they’re the same for everybody), hostile crowds (won’t it be great to shut them up?) — that can be viewed either as bad breaks or opportunities for greatness.
When you’re off your game: This goes back to preparation. Do you know why 3-point shooters in basketball can keep shooting even though the best of them miss more than half their shots? Because they’ve seen thousands go in at practice. They always believe they’re going to make the next one.
Confidence comes from preparation. Preparation doesn’t guarantee you will never fail, but it helps you bounce back when failure inevitably arrives.
When you’re in pain: We’ve all been hurt enough to be affected by the injury, but not so hurt as to stop playing. In those moments, we turn to our minds — our mental toughness — to get us through.
Distance runners might close out thoughts of pain by consciously running for all those who can’t, but hockey players might better concentrate on “why.”
Not “why am I doing this?” Don’t ask in the moment. Know before you step on the ice. Your “why” is your strength.
Author bio: AJ Lee is Marketing Coordinator for Pro Stock Hockey, an online resource for pro stock hockey equipment. Lee was born and raised in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, and has been a huge Blackhawks fan his entire life. AJ picked up his first hockey stick at age 3, and has yet to put it down. He played hockey at Illinois State University while earning his bachelor’s degree in marketing.
At Premier Sport Psychology, we help athlete’s train their mind to manage fears and still perform under pressure, on demand, and when fatigued. To work on your mental toughness and other mindset skills, check out our Mindset Training Program at https://www.mindsetprogram.com